Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Hungry Backpack; Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Resource Denial

While playing Munchkin the other night I had the rare pleasure of using the Hungry Backpack against another player. The Backpack is what I consider to be one of the real power cards in the game. For those not in the know, the Backpack essentially devours the hand of the soul unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of the curse. At the end of each turn the player rolls a d6; on a 6 the Backpack greedily eats itself and is removed, on any other roll the player must randomly discard that number of cards from their hand. Devastating, especially since a hand can’t be larger than five cards. Within a round or two the player is stripped of just about all resources in their hand.

Denial or loss of resources is a basic strategy in most games, the Backpack is merely this principal manifested in Munchkin. In Settlers of Catan it can be seen as the Robber, casting a blight on one’s land. Losing the ability to move your first ship in Starfarers of Catan. In the above example with Munchkin the player in question was at Level 9 (one level from winning) and the Backpack essentially spelled a death sentence for her, leaving her unable to help herself win that final battle. Why is the loss of something so devastating? For starters, the game continues to move forward, other players gain resources, move their pieces, etc…But the affected player is left in a sort of stasis, unable to generate anything new. Even if they are in a good place when the freeze arrives, they may quickly find that the advantage was not as sizeable as they imagined. A turn or two without anything new may not seem like much, but often the best crafted strategies are contingent on each move, and well charted out several turns in advance based on the cards at hand. This ruins all that, so not only is a player not moving forward, they may actually be moving backward as they scramble to readjust or chart a new course.

Also, games may seem like they go on for a long time but rarely does a game go for more than 15 turns or so. Losing out on one or two of them can hurt a lot. And generally each turn counts as much as any other., though that may not always be the perception. Like in baseball, games played in April count as much as those played in the pressure of a pennant race in September, though many would say the opposite. The point is, losing out on some of them can really set a player back and the ability to enact this on another is usually the greatest resource in a player’s arsenal. Even more than helping yourself, is hurting another? Maybe, but I think that the number of players in a game ultimately decides that question.

One of the games that we’ve been playing a lot lately is Pirate’s Cove, a game that I consider to be extremely balanced. Perhaps too balanced, but that’s a post for another day. But the interesting thing about Pirate’s Cove is that there is no resource denial mechanism. Even when you lose a fight you get some tavern cards or some gold. You are always moving forward, even if only in smaller increments than your fellow scalawags. Without a mechanism to really hinder other opponents the game sometimes becomes a crap shoot, with luck playing a large role in the outcome.

It sometimes seems devious and rotten, but hindering opponents is often the most sound strategy to victory. Of course, it also garners ill will and animosity from your fellow gamers, but it’s just a game. Right?

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